Let me begin by saying that the bombing of rebel held Aleppo by Syria and Russia is beyond horrific. For so long, people have fought on the principle that Schools and Hospitals are not legitimate targets in war and that to target such places constitutes a war crime. The bombardment of Aleppo started in September. A ceasefire earlier that month put a brief stop to the conflict, but Aleppo has been under heavy bombing ever since. Although there are volunteers working hard to help those affected by the bombing, death and injury reports continue to pour in. At the time of writing, at least 99 civilians in Aleppo have been killed in the past two days. Russia and Syria have been repeatedly accused of war crimes by the UN Security Council. In a particularly blunt UN session earlier this year, the accusations focused on the use of bunker busting and the bombing of 275,000 civilians living in the rebel held areas of the city, weapons that Moscow’s accusers say were dropped by Russian aircraft. In the same meeting, Matthew Rycroft the UK ambassador to the UN, walked out of the chamber with his US and French counterparts, before the Syrian government representatives began speaking. With these sort of tensions rising many are understandably scared about what the situation in Syria and the whole of the Middle East will develop into.
Let us not pretend that this sort of brutal violence is limited to Russia and Syria’s attack on Aleppo however. The bombing of Hospitals is being carried out by the Saudis in Yemen, and the Americans in Afghanistan. Those who provide medical aid in those areas see international law as being in ruins. So far this year, according to Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), 21 of their supported medical facilities in Yemen and Syria have been attacked. Last year an MSF hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan was destroyed by a US attack, those trying to escape from the building were gunned down from the air, 42 patients and staff died. To understand why such atrocities happen, it is not enough to point to the new techniques of war such as drones and Special Forces. The Red Cross, when it was first started, was a Global Humanitarian movement and an alliance of military aligned volunteer units. This did not seem to be a contradiction. As long as a nations Army’s hospitals obeyed the Geneva Strictures by separating themselves from defensive military positions, civilian medics could volunteer on the understanding that they would not be deliberately harmed. An element of trust existed there. This could not be further from the way wars are fought today. With the fragmentation of numerous states along religious or ethnic lines, the essential story has become ‘we the normal folk against an inhumane and alien force’.
If you want to point fingers you could look to George W Bush’s administration’s refusal to treat Al Qaida detainees in Afghanistan as combatants, and its institutional tolerance of torture, sexual violence and extra judicial killings. Although these set a baseline for the crimes currently being perpetrated by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia and the Syrian Regime, this is a far more complicated issue spanning a range of decades and numerous political careers. I would argue that a large part of what seems to be fuelling the hostility in Syria is apathy or downright smear campaigns against those groups that care most about bringing an end to war crimes. Volunteers funded by the US have repeatedly been labelled biased by the Russian state, ignoring that its status as an important medical organisation precedes any biases it may have. Similarly, on Tuesday the foreign secretary of the UK, Boris Johnson launched a scathing attack on anti-war groups for not devoting enough serious attention to Russia’s war crimes, instead suggesting that the UK should be prepared to shoot down Russian planes. While these comments are obviously examples of politicians playing politics, considering the situation in Aleppo, there are a number of other problems with this mentality.
- Both Russia and the west have actively worked to undermine aid workers and anti-war groups. Russia through it bombing campaign in Aleppo not only makes the job of aid workers harder but puts them in extreme danger. Similarly, in the UK, the conservative led government have repeatedly worked to undermine the anti-war movement. Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the labour party, constantly has his opposition to nuclear weapons dismissed as unrealistic and dangerous. Similarly, following last year attacks on the Bataclan in France by ISIS, the UK media opportunistically used it as an opportunity to undermine the Stop the War Coalition by taking points they had mad in articles about UK intervention is Syria out of context. The main reason for this is that both Russia and the UK clearly have foreign policy interests that are diametrically opposed to the intentions of organisations that aim to put a stop to or to mitigate the effects of war. The idea that Russia or the UK would simply jump to the defence of these groups, based on their priorities is absurd.
- There is clearly a massive amount of hypocrisy in criticising the tactics of groups that aim to put an end to conflict, while simultaneously arguing for an escalation of that conflict yourself. As previously mentioned, Russia cannot criticise the tactics of aid groups while orchestrating a bombing campaign in the affected areas. In the same way, Boris Johnson cannot criticise anti-war groups for not trying to put a stop to the situation in Aleppo, while simultaneously arguing for the escalation of the conflict through the shooting down of Russian planes. If either country actually cared about the effectiveness of the organisations they are criticising they would do all they can to help them in their task. They do not want to do this however, because it is easier and more beneficial to their interests, to use anti-war groups and aid organisations to score points of your political opponents.
- Both Russia and the west have supported the bombing of Syrian rebels, seeing the democratic self-organisation of people in the region as a threat. Although Russia and Syria pose more of a threat to Aleppo militarily, Col Steve warren, the US military spokesperson for Baghdad declared earlier this year ‘It’s primarily Al Nusra who holds Aleppo, and of course, Al Nusra is not part of the cessation of hostilities. Similarly John Kerry declared last year, at a press conference with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, that ‘we see Syria fundamentally, very similarly, we want the same outcomes, we see the same dangers’. It is clear through Russia’s support of the Assad regime that what is meant by this is that they both see the rebel force as a danger in Syria. However, if this was not clear enough, you just need to look at when John Kerry said to aid workers, some of which probably worked in Aleppo, that the opposition were responsible for continued fighting, and said to expect three months of bombing that would ‘decimate the opposition’. Overall, before criticising anti War groups for being complacent both Russia and the UK need to account for their role in escalating the war in Aleppo.
The danger from all of this should appear obvious. If we do not stop the use of war crimes committed by anyone, then the next big war – should it occur – will see the Geneva Conventions go out of the window. Aleppo has shown us this. Our grandfather’s generation were shocked at the ways in which the Nazis broke the Geneva Convention, our generation have come to expect it to be broken in all wars. However, we need more than words around the UN table in order to sort this problem out. We need a movement from below, like the one that created the red cross, and which built the MSF in the 1970s. We need to understand that if you tolerate inhumanity anywhere in the world, then it can easily arrive at your own doorstep.